Al-Dalwah SAUDI ARABIA (Reuters) - On Monday Sunni militants attacked a Shi’ite Muslim village in Saudi Arabia and left eight people dead. By Wednesday, grief among the villagers was mixed with anger about a culture of sectarianism they say paved the way for the shooting.
With civil wars in Iraq and Syria now being fought along mainly sectarian lines, Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority feels increasingly vulnerable in a country where anger is rising among the majority sect at the plight of Sunnis in other countries.
Sunni jihadis now speak about Shi’ites as a greater enemy to members of their sect than the Western governments that were formerly their most hated foes. The Saudi government has done little to stem a corresponding upsurge of provocative language there, cracking down on only extreme examples and emphasizing a shared national identity irrespective of sect.
“For sure criticism of Shi’ites by clerics and religious television stations creates the atmosphere where this can happen. In our own schools the teachers tell our children that we are not Muslims,” said a witness of the shooting who did not want to be named for fear of repercussions.
Monday’s attack took place in al-Dalwah, located in Eastern Province’s al-Ahsa, an oasis that is home to around half the kingdom’s Shi’a minority. It prompted a police manhunt that has so far led to 20 arrests and the deaths of three suspects and two policemen in a gunfight.
Top Sunni clerics have condemned the attack, which officials have blamed on al Qaeda, and Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef visited Eastern Province to offer condolences to bereaved relatives of the victims.
Those actions have given comfort to the villagers. But some of them believe more needs to be done to stop hostility towards members of their sect.
Saudi Arabia follows the strict Wahhabi Sunni school, which is closely tied to the ruling Al Saud dynasty, and some of its senior clerics have taught that Shi’ism is heretical.
Privately owned religious television stations broadcast rhetoric against Shi’ites and influential clerics are allowed to attack the sect on Twitter.
The day after the attack the government shut down the Wesal religious television station that employed a cleric who was detained last month for Tweets glorifying the killing of Shi’ites in Yemen - but many of the sect only wonder why the station was not closed down earlier.
“We need the government to change the school books that say Shi’ites are bad. We need them to do more against the people on Twitter who hate Shi’ites and encourage people to kill them,” said a man standing outside Dalwah’s Shi’ite prayer hall, the Hosseiniya.
“We’re not asking for them to build us places of worship, or to let us go out onto the streets to protest. We just don’t want to be harassed and insulted by people,” he added.
For the people of Dalwah, a small village clinging to the foot of the rocky outcrop of Jebel Qara and wedged between palm-green date farms, their horror at the attack was particularly acute because it targeted their Ashoura commemorations.
Ashoura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram, is observed by Shi’ites as a day of mourning for Hossein, their third Imam and the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was killed by Sunni soldiers in an early dispute about leadership of Islam.
These annual mourning rituals unite Shi’ites across the Middle East but also anger many Sunnis, particularly those who follow Wahhabism, who see the ostentatious displays of grief as an insult to their own early leaders.
As a result it is only in the Qatif district of Eastern province, where the majority of inhabitants are Shi’a, that they are permitted to publicly observe these rituals. In al-Ahsa, where only half the population belongs to the sect, they are forbidden from holding processions or displaying mourning flags.
When the shooting started in al-Dalwah village, Mohammed al-Musharaf turned to shield his one-year-old baby Bassem, shouting Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”. He saved his son, but died right there on the street, Musharaf’s brother said.
The grief in the small village, where most people are related to each other, was obvious on Wednesday. Of a group of men and boys standing outside the bullet-spattered Hosseiniya, no one wanted to give their names, worried about reprisals.
“I have spoken enough. I have no words,” said an elderly man in a white robe, whose son was killed in the shooting.
A younger man said he had been standing outside the Hosseiniya when the three militants advanced down the street towards him after leaving their car under the trees.
“They were shooting at me and I ran with my head down and escaped. They weren’t saying anything as they were shooting but they were laughing,” he said.
Taleb al-Mutawa, a relative of some of the victims, is organizing Friday’s funeral which many thousands of people are expected to attend.
“Everybody has condemned what happened.. People from the government side, from the Chamber of Commerce and from big Sunni families have said they want to participate,” he added, praising the government’s response to the attack.
The Senior Council of Scholars, the top Saudi religious body, condemned the attack as a “a heinous crime whose perpetrators deserve the harshest religious penalties.”
That message was echoed by the Grand Mufti in a television address, saying the attack was intended “to open the door to sectarian conflict so that we kill and destroy each other.”
Mutawa, a relative to some of the victims, said he hoped the strong government reaction after the attack would continue and would help make things better.
“Now the blood speaks, and it says ‘stop’,” he said.
Editing by Sophie Walker